The Catholic Church in Ireland in Transition – Reflections for Zimbabwe, Published in Mukai/Vukani

mukaiI have had an article published in the latest issue of Mukai/Vukani (meaning “Wake up!”), the Jesuit Journal for Theological Reflection in Zimbabwe. This edition (volume 64, April 2013) discusses “The Church in Transition.” With kind permission from the editor, Gift Mambipiri, I’ve reproduced the article below.

The Catholic Church in Ireland in Transition – Reflections for Zimbabwe

The Catholic Church in Ireland is in steep decline. For centuries, the Catholic Church enjoyed what sociologist Tom Inglis called a “moral monopoly” over the lives of the Irish.[1] The Irish State had ceded control to the Church in areas such as education and health, and key laws reflected Catholic social teaching: divorce was not outlawed until 1995 and abortion remains illegal. This is similar to Zimbabwe, where the State also entrusted churches to administer education and health. Further, there has been a fusion between Catholicism and Irish national identity, which has been constructed in contrast to Ireland’s “old enemy,” the colonising “Protestant” British state. Out of such a heavily socialized Catholic milieu it seems shocking that the Church’s influence seems so reduced as to now be marginal in the lives of the Irish.

What can the Church in Zimbabwe learn from this transition in Irish Catholicism?

  • First, the Church is a better witness to Christ if its leaders are willing to repent for the sins of the Church. In the Irish context, this means the clerical abuse scandals and the Church’s lack of leadership in peace-making during the violent “Troubles” in Northern Ireland (ca. 1969-1998).
  • Second, the Irish Church’s sudden loss of power has created space for the empowerment of laity through “extra-institutional” ministries such as parish pastoral councils and initiatives run by religious orders. Repentance and lay empowerment free up the Church to contribute to alleviating the pressing problems of the day.

Ireland has been hard-hit by the clerical abuse scandals because of the widespread abuse of children in schools and orphanages administered by the Church.[2]

In the Republic of Ireland, a series of damning State reports into clerical abuse has continued for more than a decade. Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, also had its share of Catholic-run institutions where abuse was rife. The Church hierarchy routinely issued statements after revelations of abuse, but victims and survivors inevitably told the press they believed senior clerics were insincere, they did not go far enough in their condemnations, and they did not promise meaningful reforms.[3] In 2010, the Pope issued a pastoral letter to the Catholic Church in Ireland. Again, the letter was not well-received by laity, with one passage seeming to imply that a lack of faith among the Catholics of Ireland, rather than the abusing clergy themselves, were to blame for the abuse.[4] Elsewhere, I have detailed how Irish Catholics have expressed their dissatisfaction with the “institutional” Church’s perceived lack of response to abuse, arguing that sincere apologies and concrete steps of repentance, such as a well-received liturgy of lament and repentance at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral in February 2011,[5] would help restore the Church’s credibility.[6]

Coupled with this, the Irish Churches (Catholic and Protestant) have been criticized for their lack of action during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.[7] The conflict featured an intertwining of political/ethnic/religious identities and it is alleged that churches were merely “chaplains to the tribe.”[8] Although maverick clerics, such as Redemptorist priests at Clonard Monastery in Belfast, helped to facilitate peace talks with paramilitaries and established partnerships with Protestant churches, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church did not eagerly facilitate or support such steps. Nor have the churches seemed to have found a key role to play in peacebuilding during the current post-violence transition. Similarly, during the crisis in Zimbabwe since the turn of the century, the institutional churches have struggled to respond credibly and effectively to violence. Elsewhere, I have detailed how the Irish churches might be more active in their peace vocation, arguing that this is vital to Christian witness in a violently divided context like the island of Ireland.[9] Repentance for a failure to work more vigorously for peace and critical evaluation of the churches’ role in maintaining conflict would go a long way towards restoring the Church’s credibility.

While the influence of Church institutions in Ireland has waned, there is some evidence of a slow yet steady empowerment of laity through what I have called “extra-institutional” spaces.[10]

These spaces are fully integrated into the Catholic Church, yet are perceived by laity to function differently from or even outside the institutional church. In 2010-2011 I conducted case studies of three such spaces: Slí Eile (which means “another way” in Irish), a Jesuit young adult ministry; Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor; and the parish pastoral council in Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Dublin.[11] Both clergy and laity are involved in these groups and in all cases clergy played a key role in establishing them. Extra-institutional spaces shared three key features: they provided hope for Christianity outside the institutional church, they were safe environments for healing and personal growth, and they facilitated pursuits people felt were neglected by the institutional Church, including social justice, ecumenism, and spirituality. In Zimbabwe, the Jesuits’ Silveira House, with its emphasis on spirituality and social action, could be considered an extra-institutional space. Elsewhere, I have argued that because of the lack of trust in the institutional Church, the future of the Church may depend on how effective extra-institutional groups are in nurturing faith and social action during this time of religious transition in Ireland.

These findings resonate with my previous work in Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe, as well as that of Joram Tarusarira in Zimbabwe.

We have found that religious groups that operate outside the institutional churches are more effective in facilitating social and political change.[12] Tarusarira calls these groups “non-conformist” to emphasize their deviation from the religious status quo. Non-conformists have judged religious institutions to be too caught up in their relationships with State power-holders and too bureaucratic to respond to immediate needs. To echo the words used by survivors of clerical abuse in Ireland – the religious institutions of the status quo have put the institution before the people, thus betraying Christ. Tarusarira’s non-conformists see themselves as reversing that trend. The extra-institutional spaces I have briefly described are not fully “non-conformist” in Tarusarira’s sense, because of the intentional relationships they maintain with the institutional church (at least through their clergy). Because of these relationships, the institutional Church may be able to learn more about lay empowerment from extra-institutional rather than non-conformist groups. In Ireland, extra-institutional groups promote deeper spirituality and contextual social action, which are especially valuable during transitions where there are acute social and political problems.

In light of these reflections from Ireland, the Church in Zimbabwe could be prompted to evaluate how it is operating as an institution.

The institutional Church in Ireland should offer some sort of meaningful repentance for its conduct during the abuse scandals and the Troubles; similarly, are there specific ways in which the Church should repent for its role in Zimbabwe’s history? How would this enhance the Church’s credibility in Zimbabwe’s public sphere? Extra-institutional spaces are proving to be fruitful vehicles for nurturing faith in Ireland; similarly, does the Church in Zimbabwe have adequate extra-institutional spaces to respond to the country’s deep social and political problems? If not, how might those spaces be created; and would the institutional Church be open to learning from them?


[1] Inglis, Tom, Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland. Dublin: UCD Press, 1998.

[2] Keenan, Marie, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organizational Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011; Hogan, Linda, “Clerical and Religious Child Abuse: Ireland and Beyond,” Theological Studies, (72), 2011, pp. 170-186; Tombs, David, “Unspeakable Abuse and Forgiveness,” Doctrine and Life, 61(6), 2011, pp. 16-27.

[3] BBC News, “Abuse Victim Responds to Pope’s Apology,” (18 September 2010); Irish Times, “Victims’ Group Criticises Cardinal’s Stance,” (18 May 2010).

[4], “Pope’s Letter to Irish Catholics.” (21 March 2010).

[5], “The Irish Catholic Church’s Liturgy of Lament and Repentance.” (22 February 2011).

[6] Ganiel, Gladys, “Loss and Hope in the Irish Catholic Church Part I,” Doctrine and Life, 62(4), 2012, pp. 16-27; “Loss and Hope in the Irish Catholic Church Part II,” Doctrine and Life, 62(5), 2012, pp. 35-46.

[7] Brewer, John, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[8] Elliott, Marianne, When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Ireland: Unfinished History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[9] Ganiel, Gladys, “Can Churches Contribute to Post-Violence Reconciliation and Reconstruction? Insights and Applications from Northern Ireland,” in John Wolffe, ed, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims: Irish Religious Conflict in Comparative Perspective, London: Palgrave, forthcoming.

[10] Ganiel, “Loss and Hope … Part II.”

[11] The case studies are part of a wider project, “Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism,” funded by the Irish Research Council. Visit

[12] Ganiel, Gladys, Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, New York: Palgrave, 2008; “Striking a Balance: Christianity and the Challenges of Long Term Human Security in Zimbabwe,” in James K. Wellman Jr and Clark B. Lombardi, eds., Religion and Human Security: A Global Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp172 – 188; “Ethno-religious Change in Northern Ireland & Zimbabwe: A Comparative Study of How Religious Havens can have Ethnic Significance,” Ethnopolitics, 9(1), 2010, pp. 103-120; Tarusarira , Joram, “Of Spirits and Healing: Cultural Values and Post Conflict Reconciliation Agenda in Zimbabwe,” Journal of African Politics, Development and International Affairs, forthcoming; Tarusarira and Ganiel, “Religion, secular democracy and conflict resolution in Zimbabwe,” in Lee Marsden, ed, The Ashgate Research Companion to Religion and Conflict Resolution, Farnham : Ashgate, 2012, pp. 99-117; Ganiel and Tarusarira, “Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Zimbabwe,” in Martin Leiner and Susan Flamig, eds., Africa Between Conflict and Reconciliation, Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, forthcoming.

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